In September 2007, my son, Logan, showed me an article in The Washington Post that described one man’s mental anguish at not having any books to read. The man, a Darfur refugee living in the Gaga camp in eastern Chad, Africa, changed my life. Five years into retirement from education program work with the Federal government and only one month after this front page news story appeared, Logan and I founded Book Wish Foundation — a public charity with a mission to provide a form of humanitarian aid we call "reading relief" for some of the world’s most vulnerable populations — especially refugees. Ten months after launching www.bookwish.org, Book Wish Foundation, housed out of our Reston, Virginia home (outside of the Washington, DC metro area) we became a 501©(3) public charity, supporting the reading needs of thousands of Darfur refugees in the Gaga camp plus Bredjing and Treguine — camps where many refugees have been living for some five years now. Our inspiration comes from the refugees themselves. To date, we have helped 1,200 Darfuris learn English — which they view as their "road to freedom" — and have provided 1,750 pairs of high quality reading glasses that took a year to collect through donations — so Darfuris can see, read, and become literate. Who would have ever dreamed that my days would be spent marketing and fundraising to empower 70,000 people!
My life has changed in so many other ways. My reading tastes are now so focused on Africa — fiction and nonfiction books, especially memoirs, by authors either from Africa or have set their stories in Africa. From Helen Fielding’s "Cause Celeb" (part of the story is set in a refugee camp) to Angelina Jolie’s moving "Notes from My Travels" to Alexandre Poussin’s breathtaking "Africa Trek" series to Davoud Hari’s "The Translator" to authors from Nigeria, Uganda, Rwanda to The Acumen Fund’s "The Blue Sweater" — I cannot get enough of trying to understand the cultures and people of Africa.
As someone who derives tremendous satisfaction from reading, I cannot imagine what it must be like to not have any books — and certainly not any books that meet my needs, interests, language, culture, etc. Imagine that education is the best thing in these camps and that education is free for both girls and boys. And yet, some 20,000 primary school children in these three refugee camps (what are the numbers just in eastern Chad where there are a dozen camps?) have no textbooks! There’s a reason for this and it is complex (the textbooks must be purchased in Sudan, so the journey is dangerous) but it is amazing to me that the international community recognizes the importance of primary school education (not so for secondary school in developing countries, it seems to me) but there are no books! We are determined to change that ! Our big goal for the Darfuris in Chad is to build three brick libraries, one in each camp, each filled with 5,000 targeted books on topics such as HIV/AIDS, small ffamily farming, children’s books (there are no children’s books yet Darfur children can read, even if not at grade level), peace and reconciliation, stories told in their native languages, ESL books and ESL audio equipment and so much more. We are leading an effort to design and provide the best, portable solar lighting system for group reading. Imagine the importance of women being able to study at night? Reading is empowering, and reading is a long-term sustainable way to help thousands upon thousands of people lift up their lives over time.